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How Denmark Has Been Reintigrating Former Extremist Fighters


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. There is a new video that appears to depict yet another gruesome death. The Islamic State has purportedly killed one of two Japanese hostages. The Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, said he is, quote, "speechless" and has demanded ISIS release the second hostage.

ISIS has given its own ultimatum. They've demanded the release of a prisoner being held in Jordan on terrorism charges. The CIA estimates that ISIS has recruited up to 31,000 fighters to their ranks in Syria and Iraq. Two thousand of them are westerners, and the numbers keep going up. But what happens when those radicalized fighters return to their home countries?

Last year, the city of Aarhus in Denmark launched a program to try to bring those young jihadis back into Danish society. Allan Aarslev is a police officer from Aarhus. And he's been working with de-radicalized fighters for several years now. He says many of the young people coming home feel more lost than before they left.

OFFICER ALLAN AARSLEV: We can assist them with different kinds of help to make sure that they have a decent life when they come back from Syria. And that could be, for instance, seeing a psychologist if we feel they have posttraumatic stress, a battle mind or whatever kind of problem they could bring back from Syria. But we could also help them back to the education they left before they went.

MARTIN: So it sounds like you are treating these returning jihadis not like potential terrorists necessarily, but just like young people who may be troubled, who are just crying out for some kind of help.

AARSLEV: We think among them could be potential terrorists. That's also important to say. It is very important for us that when we focus on this group of young men, it is a very different group. Some of them are quite disillusioned when they get back from Syria and just want to get their old life back. Others, we are more concerned for them that they might be a threat to the Danish society. Of course, we do not know if they would be, but we supply all the information which we get about these young men. We pass it onto the intelligence service here in Denmark.

MARTIN: Are there any similarities? What do these young men all have in common?

AARSLEV: Well, apart from being Muslims, they have nothing in common. The mosques they attend here in the city is a Salafi Mosque. And the Swedish covered that a lot of these young men attended the same mosque. We confirmed to the press that the recruitment went on through this specific mosque. And that is one year ago. And as we said that out loud, we also discussed with the board of the mosque what could be done about this problem. And we have seen for the past year that traffic from the city of Aarhus to Syria has stopped. Thirty of them, we know for a fact, went in 2013, and only one has gone to Syria in the year of 2014.

MARTIN: So have you made any arrests when you say that all of these young men can be traced back to one particular mosque that was doing the radicalizing? Have there been any arrests made in connection with that?

AARSLEV: There have been no arrests made because it's very difficult for us to prove that they have been a member of ISIS. But of course, we have tried to prove these things, but we have not had any success.

MARTIN: I realize you need to protect the identities of the people involved in the program, but in order to better understand it, is it possible for you to tell me the story of one of these young men, perhaps someone who really benefited from the program?

AARSLEV: One of the cases I can tell you where a young man went to Syria without telling his mother and father. And he called them when he was in Syria. So we invited these parents to come into a parent supporting group. And we tried to support them through this group of persons which all have sons which are in Syria. As he returned, the parents called us right away and told us now he's back in the city, and we fear what could happen with him.

He came to our office for an interview, and we also saw that he was wounded in his one arm. He told us how he injured. As a matter of fact, he told us that he was guarding medicine that was transported to a camp where he was a helper. We do not know for a fact this story is right, but we could not prosecute him because we could not find proof that he had done anything that could incriminate him. But we could help him.

So we saw what kind of situation he was in, and we also saw that he was quite disillusioned about what he has experienced when he was in Syria. We made him see a psychiatrist. And the psychiatrist recommended to us yes, help him so we recommended to his school that they took him back. And he is, a matter of fact, in his high school again right now finishing his studies and becoming a quite normal pupil again.

MARTIN: It sounds like in order for this program to succeed, you have to have some kind of trust between these families or the Muslim community and law enforcement because it's those families, that community that has to pick up the phone and call you to alert you to a potential problem. Is that the case? What is the relationship between the Muslim community in your city and law enforcement?

AARSLEV: Well, one of the positive things we have seen through this program is we often go to meetings with minority groups in this city. And we often discuss with them what could be done about this problem. And we see them all. They are very motivated to help us to see that no Syrian foreign fighters returns to the cities of Aarhus and becomes a terrorist or a criminal.

MARTIN: You've had this program up and running for a while. I wonder how the recent terrorist attacks in France and the recent arrests in Belgium have made you think differently about your program.

AARSLEV: Well, our mind about this program has not been changed because of what has happened in France or in Belgium. We feel that every method which could be used to prevent anything serious from happening here in this country is necessary to take. The criticism we have had that we speak to these persons and we try to understand what goes on, well, we don't take that so serious because this is a method that could help us to live in a more secure society if we use this method as we use prosecution and investigation and surveillance as well. It is not crime prevention or investigation; it is both.

MARTIN: That was Allen Aarslev. He's a police officer in Aarhus, Denmark, where he helps reintegrate radicalized fighters. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.